Coalition official: Early elections if conscription bill doesn’t pass as is

Source with direct knowledge of negotiations says Netanyahu unlikely to accept any changes to proposal, predicts national poll in May or June if legislation not advanced

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party, left, at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party, left, at the Knesset on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Israel will go to elections if a contentious bill on the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men is not passed into law without any changes, a senior coalition official told The Times of Israel on Monday.

“Those are the only two options: passing the current version or going to elections,” said the source, who has direct knowledge of negotiations over the legislation.

“I don’t know what the prime minister will decide, but there is no other possibility,” the official added during a conversation in the Knesset.

Last week, the High Court of Justice granted the government a month-and-a-half to pass the bill, extending an early December deadline to mid-January. Current regulations that allow ultra-Orthodox seminary students to defer their mandatory IDF service were set to expire at the beginning of the month, and without the extension, thousands of yeshiva students would have become eligible to be drafted.

Police arrest an ultra-Orthodox Jew protesting the arrest of a draft dodger on August 2, 2018, in Jerusalem (Israel Police)

The Defense Ministry-drafted bill, the current proposal on the table, would set minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas where they study. At the same time, it would also formalize exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.

Most in the ultra-Orthodox community eschew the mandatory military service required of Israelis, and the community has historically enjoyed blanket exemptions from the army in favor of religious seminary studies.

“Whatever anyone claims, changes will not be possible,” the senior official said, amid a growing rift between ultra-Orthodox factions over the bill currently under discussion.

While the Shas party and the Degel Hatorah faction within the United Torah Judaism party have called to pass the bill as it is, UTJ’s Agudat Yisrael faction is demanding that minor changes be made.

Last month, UTJ’s chairman, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, informed the cabinet that an earlier decision by his party’s rabbinical council meant that if the latest proposal for a new version of the bill is passed into law, he and fellow faction member Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush would be forced to resign.

The coalition heads therefore decided to ask for an extension to the High Court deadline so that Litzman could seek rabbinical permission to pass the bill with some minor changes.

Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman, who is also chairman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and currently the deputy health minister, speaks to journalists after handing in his resignation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, November 26, 2017. (AFP/Gali Tibbon)

But according to the coalition official, Netanyahu was unlikely to accept any changes.

First, the bill could still pass without the support of the Degel Hatorah faction, “if [Yair] Lapid and [Avigdor] Liberman are true to their word and support it,” they said, referring to the leaders of the opposition Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu parties, both of whom supported the legislation in its initial Knesset vote.

Both Liberman and Lapid have said they will support the bill, but not if there are any changes to the current version. They may in any case wish to capitalize on the coalition’s vulnerable status — reduced to the minimal majority of 61 MKs, after Liberman resigned earlier this month as defense minister and withdrew his party from the coalition — and oppose the bill, in a move that could topple the government.

More importantly, the coalition official added, if the law were to pass, any changes made to the Defense Ministry proposal would “put it in real danger of being nullified by the Supreme Court.”

Illustrative. Soldiers of the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion study at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/ Flash90)

Last September, the court threw out an earlier version of the same legislation on the grounds that it undermined the principle of equality before the law, and imposed the deadline on the government to redraft it. The official said that the current bill “also doesn’t meet those grounds,” but “it will be hard for them to say no to a bill supported by the IDF.”

If changes are made, however, “it will allow them to cancel it,” the official said. And, if the bill doesn’t pass, “I think elections will be announced next month, before the draft bill deadline, and take place in the second half of May or June.”

Elections are currently slated for November 2019, though the recent coalition changes have threatened to bring that date forward.

Further eroding the coalition’s stability, last week, the Israel Police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for taking bribes in the Bezeq-Walla probe, known as Case 4000, the third case in which law enforcement officials have concluded that he should stand trial.

An indictment could hamper Netanyahu’s chances of running again for prime minister as the head of the Likud party.

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